Out-Law News 4 min. read

New code to govern driverless car testing in the UK

'Driverless' cars being tested on public roads in the UK will need to be fitted with data recorders, the government has said.

The requirement will be stipulated in a new code of practice to be issued in the spring which will be designed to set guidance on the testing of driverless cars in the UK, it said.

The plans to publish a new code of practice on the testing of driverless cars in the UK were included in a new government report (191-page / 81MB PDF) which concluded that the UK's legal and regulatory environment does not present a barrier to the testing of 'driverless' cars on public roads.

"Some form of data recorder should be fitted to test vehicles," the government's summary report said. "In the event of an incident or collision this data should be made available to the relevant authorities so they can analyse the circumstances leading to the event, including whether the vehicle was in an automated mode or under manual control."

The code will also require qualified test drivers to be ready to "take manual control" of cars operating in an automated mode "if necessary". The technology power driverless cars will also need to have been subjected to "house testing on closed roads or test tracks" before automated vehicles can be tested on public roads, the government said.

The government's review found that driverless cars have the potential to boost UK productivity, improve road safety, reduce emissions, ease congestion and "provide significant economic, environmental and social benefits, including improving social inclusion".

The UK government is funding the testing of driverless cars on public roads in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry. Testing conducted through the government-funded schemes will have to adhere to the code of practice. Those that fail to follow the code could be said to be at fault, it said.

"A code of practice that reflects good and responsible practice with regard to the safety of other road users would carry considerable weight on any issue of liability," the government said. "By involving industry stakeholders in developing the code we expect them to act in accordance with it."

While initial testing of driverless cars in the UK will involve automated vehicles that are subject to a qualified test driver's supervision, there are longer term plans to introduce fully autonomous vehicles onto UK roads.

The government said it would also look to provide clarification on who would be held responsible for collisions involving autonomous vehicles.

"There needs to be greater certainty around criminal and civil liability in the event of an automated vehicle being in a collision," the government said. "Under the current legal framework these issues would be dealt with on a case by case basis by the courts. We will aim to provide additional clarity and certainty in legislation, to provide a sound basis upon which to allocate criminal and civil liability."

Litigation expert Andrew Masterson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said existing rules governing manufacturers' liability for collisions due to defective products probably does not need to be changed.

"However, the government is likely to want to change the law to move to a 'strict liability' regime to make vehicle owners responsible for collisions their autonomous vehicles are involved in, even where those vehicles are in fully automated mode." Masterson said.

"Strict liability would represent a change to the existing regime where the behaviour of drivers involved in an accident is subject to a test for negligence. The way the test is formulated generally ensures that innocent victims of vehicle collisions can obtain redress from drivers’ insurers. However, a test for negligence would not be appropriate to ensure effective redress for victims of collisions that are no fault of an individual but which instead stem from technological faults. Even so the current system provides ready redress to injured parties via insurance and that is likely to be seen as worth preserving," he said.

Consumer protection rules currently enable drivers or pedestrians to claim damages from car manufacturers as a result of harm suffered from an inherent fault with a vehicle, Masterson said.

"The current position is that manufacturers must ensure that vehicles they supply are free of defects," Masterson said. "If it fails to meet this standard, manufacturers can be held responsible for accidents that arise from the defect. In the context of collisions involving driverless cars, manufacturers could be held liable for accidents stemming from software bugs, for example."

Masterson said that the move towards increasingly autonomous vehicles could have a wide impact.

"Driverless cars have the potential to push up standards of driving beyond what can be reasonably expected of people due to the consistency that can be delivered by machines," he said. "A higher standard of 'driving' should lead to a drop in the number of collisions, with a knock-on drop in insurance claims and insurance premiums. If the reduced risk leads to lower margins for insurers it could lead to consolidation in the insurance market too."

In its report, the government said that changes to existing rules on vehicle maintenance will need to be amended to "allow the use of automation technology without a test driver and to ensure that the technology is maintained correctly". The changes could involve alterations to MOT testing, whilst a revision to the Highway Code might also be necessary to account for "automated vehicle technologies".

The government also said it might in future require autonomous vehicles to adhere to "a higher standard of 'driving'" than those demanded of people driving cars. It said it would review if changes to UK regulations are also required to "ensure automated vehicle technologies are protected from possible cyber threats".

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